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What do students think and how do universities find out?

  • 16 August 2021
  • By Graham Galbraith

This week we will be running a selection of chapters from our recently released report, ‘What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say‘ edited by Michael Natzler, HEPI Policy Officer. Today’s piece is by Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Portsmouth.

In an increasingly marketised higher education sector, students have become our ‘customers’ but they are also far more than this. My students are citizens of the University, most are residents of Portsmouth as well as members of sports clubs, political societies and so much more. In all of these guises they can rightly claim to have some voice in the life of the University – and this voice goes way beyond how they ‘consume’ their education. Indeed, even in the narrower sense of students’ education, the language of the consumer in no way captures students’ role, identity and need for a voice. Students are often co-creators of their learning, not passive recipients of a service who can easily exit in the way that the language of markets can sometimes make people think.

These different identities and roles make the issue of the student voice complex and there is no doubt that the changes of the last decade or so have added further layers of complexity. Students pay more for their education, there are more full-time undergraduates than ever before, (happily) the student body is also more diverse than it ever has been and (rightly) students are more confident in demanding what they need from universities and their lecturers. They do not merely accept what a university or individual academic wants to offer: they challenge us and make us innovate and change. University life is almost unrecognisable from my days as an undergraduate and much the better for it.

As students’ needs, views and preferences have changed, universities have also evolved to respond. In our Department of Curriculum and Quality Enhancement (DCQE), the University of Portsmouth has developed an excellent resource for enhancing our students’ academic experience through supporting and reinforcing the work of our academic community. But, truth be told, at the institutional level – and like many universities – we have not always got things right, but importantly we are always striving to do better.

The National Student Survey (NSS) has undoubtedly been a key driver of this change. Unlike my time at university, when staff were free to ignore students’ views and feedback, the NSS has highlighted the impact of staff’s actions on students and their learning. The NSS has been a force for positive change, improving the experience for students. In the early days, it was met with great scepticism but, as we have adapted to using the results to improve what we do, it has been transformational for the sector. There are of course some who remain opposed to the idea of listening to what students think, but with each year there are fewer and fewer of them.

The NSS provides the only opportunity for a consistent and coordinated voice for students, it provides important external scrutiny of universities for the public and government and genuinely supports enhancement of what universities do. It is therefore astonishing that the Government wishes to reconsider its use and might even consign it to history. The evidence shows that the NSS does not dumb-down but more often than not is used by students to highlight their desire for greater challenge, more demanding teaching content and better, more interesting and more relevant teaching experiences.

Of course, even if the NSS were to remain and to be improved it will never be an answer to all student concerns. Students’ unions do an admirable job here not least because they can force universities out of any bureaucratic comfort zones and ensure we engage on students’ terms, on the issues students judge important. Students’ unions can also challenge government – which is perhaps one reason they are not always flavour of the month.

I have experienced challenges from students’ unions many times over my career, most recently over the speed with which the University of Portsmouth is addressing the evident racial inequalities within the University, both in terms of student outcomes and experiences. We had been making good progress – the University was in the process of creating the post of Director of Race and Equality – but not enough for our students. Rightly, they pointed this out and pushed us. Discussions were not easy and were fraught with difficulty, but we are better for having had them because they prompted actions that were needed. We are now undertaking a governorled review of race equality at the University.

Of course, the issue of racial inequalities within universities is unquestionable because the evidence is there for all to see – particularly in universities’ Access and Participation Plans. This is not true for all issues and the reality is that only a minority of students ever actively engage with their union and election turnouts are typically at levels that would make even local councillors’ blush. This means that whenever an issue comes up from a students’ union one is always left asking how significant really is this issue for students? What other issues that students care about are not getting through? When independent evidence supporting students’ unions’ priorities is not always present, how should universities respond? We have to find new ways to engage with our students to help them articulate their voice.

The student voice during the pandemic

One of the central features of crises is that they speed up the pace of change, highlight latent tensions and test institutional culture. On the whole, the University – indeed the sector – has done extremely well but there have been pressure points along the way. Two in particular stand out for me: ‘no detriment’ in 2020 and graduation in 2021. The University got both of them right … eventually. We also learned a huge amount.

Like all universities, in 2020 we had to adapt our examination and assessment regulations in light of the pandemic precipitated lockdown. We adopted a series of practices to ensure students would suffer (in the language of the time) ‘no detriment’. I have nothing but admiration for the way our academic staff and professional services teams adapted and applied the new approach; it worked. But, unfortunately, before it had a chance to succeed, we learned that we had not done enough to explain how the system would work in a language students understood.

In our race to ensure the work was done – and it is easy to forget the unprecedented chaos of spring 2020 – we did not make the imaginative leap to realise that explaining the changes we had made in dry QAA-approved language would not necessarily reassure deeply worried and anxious young people whose lives had just changed completely.

Looking back, given the pressures, it is hard to see how we could have done things very differently. As I say, it was unprecedented chaos – chaos that affected everything and everyone across the whole country, indeed the world. But we did have difficult seas to navigate: we were telling students we were doing what they wanted, but they were telling us we were not. Working closely with the students’ union, we got through it and we have not had the same problems this year. But we might have avoided choppy waters last year if we had a better grasp on what students had thought and – more importantly – felt about the matter.

Roll forward to this year and lockdown in January. The prospect of in-person graduation ceremonies in July seemed impossible. As graduation ceremonies need to be planned many months in advance, a decision had to be made. In February 2021 we wrote to students telling them there would be no in-person graduation ceremonies this summer. The speed with which my inbox filled up with emails from students and parents, the contents of which were (on the whole) far from supportive of the decision did indeed tell me what students thought. It is not, though, my preferred way to understand the student voice (and not students’ preferred method of articulating it either I imagine).

Our error was to view this summer’s graduation ceremonies too rationally and without emotion. But graduation ceremonies are intrinsically about emotion. We thought we were helping students so that they had to worry about one less thing. But as many students passionately explained, we were taking away something that had kept them going and that would be a deeply significant event for them and, in many cases, their families too. As a result, over a three week period from 12 July 2021 we ran 44 separate in-person graduation ceremonies.

What we have learned

All institutions, be it businesses, bureaucracies or governments (both local and national), get things wrong sometimes. For universities, it is important that when errors are made – when students’ voices are not heard or not properly responded to – they are rectified, but this is not enough. Universities need to innovate and find new ways to engage with the student voice. We ran focus groups on what students value most about graduation, so that if ceremonies had to be altered because of social distancing requirements, we could make sure we kept what is most valued.

On focus groups, polling and other forms of deliberative engagement, universities can learn a lot from businesses and government about how to get more regular input and feedback and a better grasp of what people want and think. Universities also have to become more responsive to the sometimes insistent and confusing views that come through social media. In today’s world, no organisation can ignore social media and we must all see it positively. These ways to engage with the student voice must be added to the valuable role students’ unions play, as well as surveys both within institutions and nationally.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Given the many different identities of students – ‘customers’, citizens of a university, residents of a place – it would be unreasonable to expect that there would be. Embedding different ways to engage with the student voice will be new and challenging for many in the sector, particularly over the next few years as we enter more difficult and straitened times. Despite our near term prospects, indeed perhaps because of them, embedding different ways to engage with the student voice will not only become more important, in fact it will be critical for the sector’s continuing success both domestically and internationally.

Make sure to read the rest of the collection here.

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